Run by refugees, Talking Hands is the Italian design & fashion studio where art and storytelling create employment opportunities, tear down barriers and interweave communities.
“We finally made it,” says Fabrizio Urettini, artistic director and founder of Talking Hands, a fashion and design studio and community space run by refugees in Treviso, Northern Italy. He just heard the good news: after 5 years of bureaucratic nightmares, all Talking Hands participants received the Italian residence permit. They’ll be able to access services like healthcare and education and apply for a visa to travel back to their home country and visit their families. “We’ve also just been nominated for a prestigious design award. I can assure you, that’s nothing compared to the relief after the endless loops we’ve had to go through to see basic human rights recognised.”
Talking Hands was born in the midst of what Fabrizio describes as a humanitarian crisis. In 2016, thousands of asylum seekers were looking for refuge in Treviso and although he and the team knew that employment would have played an important role in the future of the community, they first had to focus on basic needs like food and water as well as legal and language assistance. As refugees were housed in Reception Centres and “hot spots” inside former barracks, they lacked access to effective emergency facilities and integration programmes and remained isolated from the local community. Marginalisation and unemployment made it impossible for them to participate in society.
Fabrizio teamed up with other NGOs, political collectives and community members to occupy a former military base and turn it into a community centre and design studio. Today, Talking Hands is a social enterprise that facilitates professional training as well as employment and social inclusion opportunities for participants. From clothing production and retail to woodwork, welding and embroidery, refugees learn new skills and trades and work with a network of Italian creatives, design studios, manufacturers, and fairs.
Sanryo Cissey and Samuel Agyemang, who had already worked as tailors in Gambia and Ghana, are currently leading the project with Fabrizio and working with local and migrant designers, students, activists, and photographers at the studio.
Projects focus on inclusion, diversity, and sustainable design and materials. They range from Rifùgiati, micro playgrounds made of recycled materials and enriched with artwork inspired by contemporary African textures, to Blue Carpet, a blue denim rug that was embroidered in the public square by Talking Hands tailors and members of the public. It represents a map of the world telling “the story of a journey from one continent to the other.” In March 2020, Talking Hands converted production lines and standards to manufacture washable protective face masks for the I Make Your Mask campaign, aimed at raising awareness and containing the spread of the COVID-19 virus.
Whenever possible, Talking Hands artisans personally deliver their creations to local homes. The neighbourhood walks enable intercultural exchange as participants are encouraged to interact with people along the way fostering open dialogue, mutual understanding and connection through design appreciation. Besides buying materials locally from low-emission producers that treat their workers fairly, the studio also supports the circular economy and promotes “cultural appreciation over appropriation.”
If the name of the atelier evokes the world-renowned Italian love for hand gestures, it also represents the project’s focus on manual activities as a form of storytelling. The website explains that even when people are stripped of resources, basic human rights and their own voice, their hands carry a wealth of experiences and emotions they cannot be deprived of. Talking Hands represent the stories artisans carry with them as well as the potential and creativity their hands hold.
Community and personal narrations, biographies, journeys and dreams are explored and interwoven through the design process. The studio’s latest capsule collection Mixité turns philosophy into textiles and is “a celebration of diversity” made of reversible, unisex coats with African wax fabric on one side and carbon-neutral Italian wool on the other.
Fabrizio says that the inspiration for the studio’s creative process and collective re-imagination comes from postcolonial theory and authors such as Glissant, Serres, and Benhabib, and is based on “the normativity of cultural mixité.” He says:
“We don’t think it’s possible to create a cultural project without building connections between one’s experience and that of others. […] Culture cannot be considered as the simple sum of separate worlds […] We want to highlight a participatory design process that’s shaped by turbulences rather than linear patterns.”
Fabrizio tells us that the project was well-received by locals, who participate by volunteering and sharing their ideas and experiences. Both in-person and online, people show their support, offer collaborations, and share pictures wearing and using the studio’s creations. Especially during the pandemic, customers got in touch to support the production of face masks and sent selfies wearing the colourful fabrics. Fabrizio recalls: “It was important to feel everyone so close in a moment like that.”
AtlasAction: Shop the new Talking Hands collection online, or simply visit the atelier, share your experience and unleash your creativity to build more inclusive futures.
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Samuel Agyemang, Sarjo Ceesay and Fabrizio Urettini
This project has been selected as part of FashionFutures, a new content channel that maps the work of people transforming the fashion sector: the designers, craftspeople, social innovators, educators, community leaders and communicators. Atlas of the Future is excited to partner with Makerversity, with the support of The J J Charitable Trust and their network of fashion friends.
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